Dr Achola Pala: Empowered and empowering mentor for country

Achola Pala Okeyo

Prof Achola Pala Okeyo.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Dr Achola Pala Okeyo was an undergraduate contemporary of mine in Dar es Salaam. 
  • We both fell in love, not with each other, but with the city called “Haven of Peace” and the Tanzanian/Swahili way of life of the time.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and we will all be doing our best to let our mothers know how much we appreciate them. I am not short these days of inspiring models of East African women’s achievement, and this week is no different. With a Chief Justice Designate and a dazzling state visit, Kenyans hardly need reminding of the arrival of the day of our sisters and mothers.

I will not, however, roam the corridors of power today. Rather, by way of celebrating Mother’s Day, I wish to share with you a brief sketch of the career of a close friend of mine who I believe represents many of the sterling qualities of our daughters, sisters and mothers. Dr Achola Pala Okeyo, whom I mentioned to you recently, was an undergraduate contemporary of mine in Dar es Salaam. 

We both fell in love, not with each other, but with the city called “Haven of Peace” and the Tanzanian/Swahili way of life of the time. I have often told you of my own enchantment with Dar, but if you thought I was exaggerating, listen to Dr Achola Pala, as she shared with me in a recent communication.

“In Dar,” she reminisced, “one of the things I loved most was the freedom to be me, a beautiful African woman who did not have to pretend to be anyone else. I could design my own clothes simply from the khanga and kitenge fabrics, wear easy shoes, choose from a myriad variety of earrings and just be beautiful me. All complexions were given equal weight, whether ebony dark like mine, brown or yellow like my sister Zahra Nuru from Tanga, or the Bazungu. In other words, diversity was fully embraced. Inclusion was the rule not the exception in day-to-day relationships.”

At one point she observes, “­Whether dancing at Mnazi Moja, strolling on the beach off Ocean Road, all these were part and parcel of the charm and magic of Dar-es-salaam. Living and studying in Dar was easy, elegant yet simple. You felt you were in the presence of something bigger than yourself and you were in that space with many others who simply had a right to be there.”

Professional engagements

Well, if you thought it was only this Mwalimu that waxed lyrical about “meeting thieves” at the coast, you now know better. Incidentally, Dr Pala, whose first name “Achola” is a complimentary identification of a dark-skinned beauty, studied Literature and Sociology with us in Dar, although she eventually distinguished herself as an anthropologist.

Dr Achola Pala turned out to be arguably the most brilliant scholar among us arts and social sciences aspirants of our Dar times. She is also one of the most consistently productive professionals among us, as a researcher, teacher, writer, international civil servant, diplomat, innovator, and most importantly for me, grassroots activist. The gist of our reflection is how this sister from Seme came to achieve all this.

On the academic front, Achola Pala sailed through Kenya’s school system in the mid-1960s, from Butere Girls to Limuru Girls, where she was one of the first (handpicked) sixth form African students, and on to Dar es Salaam University. Then it was on to Harvard, where she earned Master of Arts degrees in Education and in Anthropology, and then a doctorate in Anthropology.

Then followed an endless string of professional engagements and posts, in which Dr Achola Pala consistently distinguished herself. She repeatedly scored striking firsts with her inexhaustible resourcefulness and indefatigable energy. Even the briefest and barest listing of Dr Achola Pala’s achievements, both in Kenya and on the international scene, would be enough to fill several columns of this paper.

Her work as a Senior Research Fellow at the UoN’s Institute of Development Studies, foreshadowed disciplines like today’s gender studies, and her role in the women’s movement contributed significantly to the establishment of the Women’s Bureau, a forerunner of today’s Gender Ministry.

Her five-year stint as Principal Research Scientist at ICIPE (International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology), as it was then, ensured the incorporation of socioeconomic considerations into the Centre’s programmes.

Heart-warming impressions

At the United Nations, Dr Achola Pala served as Senior Policy Advisor on Governance and Chief of the Africa Section of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM, currently UNWOMEN). Of particular significance among her international achievements was the pivotal role she played in the establishment of the Association of African Women for Research in Development (AAWORD). This, for me, underlines the tenet that advocacy for women’s causes should be based on concrete, researched factual evidence.

As if to illustrate this, Dr Achola Pala, from her Mbita Point residence, currently works with grassroots women’s organisations. One of these is the NyiSango (sisters of the Lake) NGO, with its empowerment and social change project, with a focus on community health and support to widows and orphaned children. 

Dr Achola Pala’s story leaves me with two heart-warming impressions. The first is that powerful and influential people are often the products of empowering backgrounds. The distinguished scholar readily admits that she owes much of her success to the unrelenting parenting of both her parents and the encouragement of her three brothers and seven sisters.

The Pala parents belonged to that nexus of early Maseno progressives who embraced education for themselves and as a necessity for all their children, regardless of gender. They adamantly ignored the “advice” of their neighbours that sending girls to school was “useless”. 

Regarding the contribution of Dr Achola Pala’s siblings, she emphasises that she was parented by not only her mother and father but also by her brothers and, especially, all her elder seven sisters. She admits each of the sisters “mothered” her in her own way.

I was touched to confirm that one of the brothers who also contributed to Achola’s parenting was her eldest brother, my friend and fellow ex-Makererean, the late Dr Francis Otieno Pala. You may probably remember him as one of the founder-parents of the Kenya National Library Services.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us!

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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